No one is more sold on the concept of influencers than younger generations.
So much so, that 86% of millennials and Gen Z want to be influencers. Social commentary aside, this paradigm shift brings up an interesting point: where does traditional academia fit into the changing picture of the future workforce? How can traditional institutions groom Gen Z (folks born after 1995) with the skills necessary to thrive in the community-driven digital economy?
I spoke to Ari Lightman, Professor of Marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College to learn how universities are not only closing this talent gap, but also how they’re selling Gen Z on the concept of traditional academia in the era of YouTube learning.
Kyle Wong: What is different about the job landscape that future talent is entering?
Ari Lightman: They are entering a workplace where organizations are to some extent being impacted by digitization and many are in the midst of digital transformation. Some organizations are doing this better than others (focus on strategic vs project based initiatives, dedicating time and effort to understand culture and adoption, setting up mechanisms for experimentation, resiliency, etc). Workplace disengagement continues to be an issue leading to increasing levels of turnover. Progressive companies are putting together initiatives focusing on work-life balance, fostering social issues and developing a quality of place not just work. In addition, the very nature of work is changing in terms of how it is distributed, who works on it, how it is accomplished (crowdsourced, freelanced, and smaller continuous tasks), and how teams interact (remote, social, digital, and inherently more collaborative with apps in the cloud). Also, disruption is accelerating in different industries partly as a result of the diminishment of trust, new non-traditional entrants, security and regulation, and trying to remain relevant with the next generation of consumers .
KW: Gen Z might feel lightyears different from older generations, but that may make them successful in the era of the influencer. What personality traits make a good influencer manager at a strategic level, and why?
Communication, engagement and team building. Companies often fail at strategic initiatives due to lack of coordination and communication between departments and partners. Some of the best influencers I have seen understand how to effectively communicate and bridge disparate interests and geographies, and community influencer managers should mirror that skill. This innate understanding of how influencers build community, sustain engagement and continually build interactive content is something that can transfer between an influencer manager and a good influencer; if the 86% of Gen Z and millennials who would like to be influencers understand this, the gap should be easier to close.
KW: You mentioned that marketing organizations are changing due to digital disruption and other factors. Given that, where do you think Influencer marketing managers should sit in the org chart and how will that change in the future?
That really depends on the initiative and type of work. My thinking is that there are initiatives to promote greater levels of internal communication, information sharing and understanding cognition from a behavioral perspective. I think this is an urgent need for communicators and influencers. This position might be within internal comms helping assess and increase the impact associated with internal corporate communication but also community management across a variety of collaborative communities. On the external side, marketing and PR could use help boosting engagement and community management. In addition as online communities become a strategic differentiator in using external thinking and talent for a variety of initiatives (product development, sales, customer service and support) influencer skillsets become critical for the success of these efforts. I think this might be a permanent position or a consultant from marketing/PR that helps with targeted engagements.
KW: Point blank – Is academia equipped to keep up with the changing talent requirements of the digital age?
I really hope so…One of the initiatives I see several universities putting into place is classes/programs/concentrations focused on experiential and project-based learning. These programs/classes focus on teams of students working with clients over the course of a class, semester, or academic year. These real world engagements focus on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills like resilience, grit, and empathy. This is a critical pairing for today’s world of complexity, data-driven management, and real-time response. One of the important skills for the next generation of employees is understanding and assessing effective digital communication. At CMU, we are building an initiative focused on digital storytelling with one of the major thrusts focusing on complex data driven storytelling and information fidelity across digital channels as well as the digital information lifecycle from creation to consumption with mechanisms in place to reinforce each other.
KW: That’s interesting that you mention the emphasis on digital storytelling as it’s clearly a hugely important challenge for today’s brands. What other challenges are associated with modern brand marketing as it pertains largely to social media?
Social especially has some different characteristics than traditional marketing channels. Each social channel/platform has a unique set of engagement norms/culture. Folks that would like to use these channels to engage, build community and achieve some business initiatives need to understand the channel and be able to build not only a presence but also tacit skills on how to engage and not disenfranchise the brand.
KW: Lastly, since it’s been in the news a lot recently – now that Instagram is removing likes, will that change influencer marketing?
Yes, It will. I think it’s the right direction in that likes are becoming commoditized and a symbol of slacktivism and passivity in engagement. Being relatively easy to do, it has lost any intrinsic value and becomes a measure of reach and popularity. If we want to change behavior and get online audiences involved other measures will be needed. So now we need to think of other measures to gauge success rather than simply basing it on “likes” which can easily be manipulated and faked.
Some lack optimism when they read headlines touting the popularity of ‘influencer’ as a career choice – but I don’t. In a time when influence is highly acknowledged and unequivocally ‘opted-in’ to, young consumers succeed in using their own self-awareness and passions to connect with those around them. Be it digitally or otherwise, the act of connecting is a skill that will never go out of style. Whether that’s learned in a classroom or on Instagram (or any other digital channel) speaks to the tenacity of the future generation’s hunger to tell their stories and share. Digital may scare those who fear we’re losing our connection to each other, but ultimately, nothing is more human than telling stories in any way we can.